Three times daily with food

Ruth Parker

  Atlanta's Safety Net

Atlanta’s safety net at Grady

From a minor illness to full-blown AIDS

Second chance at life

For many years, health care providers assumed that a nod, a mumble, or even silence meant that their patients understood what they were being told about their condition and the treatments being prescribed.

Not so then, and not so now. According to the Institute of Medicine, more than half of all adults in the United States have difficulty in understanding health information. Some are too embarrassed to admit that they can't read or that they read poorly. Others lack the vocabulary needed to understand what is being said or they hear the words from a cultural perspective that is different from the speaker's.

Minorities, immigrants, the poor, the elderly, and people with chronic mental and/or physical conditions are especially vulnerable. Emory medical professor Ruth Parker (pictured above), who sees many such patients in her work at Grady Memorial Hospital, sounded the alarm 20 years ago when she co-authored the first published study of low health literacy and its correlation with poor health outcomes.

With Parker on board, Emory has become a leader in health literacy efforts. Thanks in large part to her continuing effort, the importance of health literacy is beginning to get its due nationwide. It is now routinely addressed in all medical school curricula so future health care providers learn how to ensure that their patients understand their verbal instructions and those on their prescriptions.

None too soon, says Parker. According to an article she recently co-wrote, demographics suggest that U.S. literacy skills are expected to worsen, causing more problems, unless changes continue to be made. "We have some pretty powerful people today who are paying attention to health literacy, so I'd have to say I'm optimistic," says Parker. "But if we don't address it, we are going to end up in a bad place."

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